UVA Law's BLSA Members Travel to Uganda to Share Best Legal Practices

The students who participated in this year's BLSA service trip to Uganda, pictured with Keita Rose-Atkinson (center) of the International Law Institute's African Centre for Legal Excellence, are Ajani Brown, Josephine Biemkpa, Renee Manson, Amber Strickland, Jessica Douglas and Danielle Stokes.

February 4, 2015

Six University of Virginia School of Law students traveled to Uganda during the winter break to help build a continuing education platform for judges, attorneys and professionals who use the nation's legal system.

The members of the Black Law Students Association who participated in the nine-day January service trip worked on behalf of the International Law Institute's African Centre for Legal Excellence, an organization contracted by Uganda to help restructure the judiciary. The institute's larger mission is to improve law, governance, finance and project management so that African nations can better compete globally.

Second-year law student Danielle Stokes, this year's BLSA community service chair, said their assignment focused on human rights within the judiciary. The students recommended educational content in such areas as trial advocacy and legislative drafting. The content will be used in certificate programs geared toward legal and business professionals.

"Our job was to survey the law in that area and develop the key things that need to be known," Stokes said. "We were asked to create something that says these are the best practices, and this is why we think they should be implemented."


A cityscape in Kampala, Uganda's capital

In addition to providing research to back their talking points, which will be referenced by instructors, the students made recommendations for the most effective ways for the instructors to inform their audiences.

"They wanted us to find dynamic ways to convey the information, whether it be a TED Talk or a YouTube video," she said.

Uganda, a landlocked country in East Africa with fertile soil, sizeable mineral deposits and largely untapped reserves of crude oil and natural gas, is poised for greater economic growth, yet tradition sometimes interferes with its progress, as the students learned during a training session with rural magistrates.

"One of the issues raised was how to do we convey to people they can't allow personal issues like having to go to a wedding, having to go to a funeral, to cause a stay in a case," Stokes said.

Other goals of the institute, and the country, include the establishment of an independent commercial court, the development of a system of court-annexed mediation, the introduction of a small-claims procedure, and the modernization of judicial administration through electronic case management.


The Commercial Court Building in Kampala

Each year, BLSA organizes a service trip abroad, and students apply for a limited number of spots. Past destinations have included Liberia and Sierra Leone. Those who are accepted receive paid travel expenses and accommodations through BLSA's relationships with participating law firms.

This year's students earned a total of 80 pro bono hours for their work during the trip.

Amber Strickland, a first-year law student who said she wants to become a prosecutor of civil rights and human rights violations, worked on course material that focused on rights, good governance and leadership. She said highlights of her experience included meeting and hearing the experiences of the magistrates and visiting Jinja, Uganda — the source of the Nile River — when the students found free time.

"Prior to starting law school, I spent a year with an international human rights organization, and I was thrilled about the opportunity to travel again and to experience a new and different kind of work," Strickland said. "I had never been to Africa before, but friends had told me wonderful things about Uganda. The trip combined a chance to learn about a new type of work and a new culture."

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